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B21 panel calls for unity amid differences

PHOENIX (BP) — Christian unity should transcend differences on Calvinism, politics and race for the advancement of the Gospel, panelists told more than 800 attendees June 13 at the ninth annual Baptist21 luncheon during the Southern Baptist Convention’s meeting in Phoenix.

“Our world is going straight to hell and we need to be one in telling people about Jesus and not letting these secondary things divide us,” said SBC President Steve Gaines, senior pastor of Memphis-area Bellevue Baptist Church in Cordova, Tenn.

Responding to moderator Jedidiah Coppenger on the debate over Calvinism in the denomination, Gaines said Baptists should focus on soul-winning evangelism regardless of their doctrinal convictions on the matter. He said Baptists are better evangelizing together rather than fighting over secondary doctrines. Gaines also encouraged Calvinist-leaning pastors to allow unbelievers to respond during evangelistic presentations and church services because confessing the name of Jesus is necessary to be saved.

“The main thing we can do to go forward is to focus on winning people to Jesus Christ,” Gaines said. “If you’re a Calvinist or a non-Calvinist you don’t know who’s lost and who’s saved. I would just say if you’re going to be a Calvinist be a Spurgeon Calvinist, and let’s go out and tell people about Jesus Christ. The bottom line is this: we’re supposed to ask people to repent and believe in the Gospel.”

Politics an ‘unnecessary division’

Reflecting on the 2016 presidential election, panelists said believers have followed the culture by placing too much emphasis on politics at the expense of Christian fellowship. Russell Moore, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, said the social media age allows people to shape their identities around political affiliations. Southern Baptists must respond by clearly defining the Gospel and calling people to Christian community that rises above partisan divisions.

“A lot of our neighbors who don’t believe what we believe assume Christianity is really just a political agenda and Jesus is an ornament on top of that,” Moore said. “One of the great gifts that we can give to America right now as we proclaim the Gospel is to say, ‘His kingdom is not of this world,’ which means that politics really isn’t the most important thing about your life.”

Kevin Smith, executive director of the Baptist Convention of Maryland/Delaware, said white Southern Baptists should be aware of how their political engagement affects minorities in the SBC. He said shifting political moods shouldn’t interfere with “John 17 unity,” which is the means for the Spirit’s work in revival and renewal.

“There’s nothing about Caesar or politics or social or economic issues that is worth me jeopardizing my fellowship with the most distant Southern Baptist brother that I barely know,” Smith said.

J.D. Greear, pastor of The Summit Church in Raleigh-Durham, N.C., and Matt Chandler, pastor of The Village Church in Denton, Texas, said pastors don’t need to be experts on political issues and shouldn’t let their opinions interfere with ministry.

“I think politics is really important, but I think the Gospel is more important,” Greear said. “I might be wrong about the helpfulness or unhelpfulness of universal healthcare, but I am not wrong about the Gospel. And I refuse to let my public opinions on the former keep people from hearing me on the latter because … I am not tying the authority of our pulpit to something that the Bible does not draw a direct line between.”

Chandler, who is also president of the Acts 29 church planting network, said pastors often feel pressured to understand complex political issues but should focus on preaching the Gospel and use the ERLC as a resource.

Racial unity requires ‘intentionality’

Diversifying SBC congregations and denominational life requires intentionality in relationships and hiring practices before experiencing true integration, panelists said in response to Coppenger’s question about racial reconciliation.

Greear and Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary President Danny Akin said the SBC will only improve on race relations when they intentionally hire ethnic minorities and allow them to lead at the local and national levels. But Greear cautioned attendees against thinking the process in the local church is easy, and said “we don’t want to host multicultural events, we want to live multicultural lives.”

Smith, who has pastored both majority black and multiethnic congregations, said churches need to reach across socioeconomic barriers, which adds another layer to racial division. He urged white leaders to be vocal in expressing their concern for racial reconciliation, and that “silent friends discourage fellowship” in times of adversity.

“In a culture that obviously has a history of racism it is hurtful to fellowship when we see few brothers that are willing to pay the cost of friendship,” Smith said, commending leaders like ERLC’s Moore who he said spent social capital on advocating for minorities.

R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, pointed to the growth of ethnic minority-led congregations in the denomination as a sign of hope and progress, and attributed the SBC’s primary diversity problem to the denomination’s history. Mohler recently contributed a chapter to the new B&H Academic title, “Removing the Stain of Racism from the Southern Baptist Convention.”

Mohler said the need to listen to minorities in the SBC to bring about further reconciliation “humbles me more than anything else.”

“Our legacy goes back to 1845 in terms of the greatest obstacle we face is with what historically is the largest minority group in the United States, African-Americans. This is the great burden we carry, it’s the great scandal and stain we can never remove,” Mohler said, referring to the SBC’s founding as a split from Northern Baptists over the issue of slavery.

“We are even now the most racially, ethnically, linguistically diverse denomination in the United States, and far more diverse than the liberal denominations that are given to an ideology of diversity rather than a theology of diversity,” he said. “But that can’t earn us any space to escape the great problem we have.”

Unity ahead of Dallas 2018

During the panel, Gaines and Greear recounted the SBC presidential election of 2016, when Greear conceded to Gaines prior to a third runoff vote. Both said they were ready to concede but Akin’s counsel led Greear to persist that Gaines should accept the presidency.

“Both of us came into that with an attitude of ‘Let’s wash each other’s feet and let’s think about what’s best for the convention,'” Greear said. “Brothers and sisters, we have a Gospel that is too beautiful and a mission that is too urgent to let anything really step in the way.”

Akin corroborated the account and said he had never seen such “authentic humility” in how Gaines and Greear handled the situation. Akin said he would “love to see” Gaines nominate Greear for SBC president in Dallas for the 2018 annual meeting, a possibility he said Gaines mentioned during their meeting in 2016. Gaines confirmed Akin’s account of the discussion, but declined to comment further because he had not spoken to Greear about the nomination since last summer, the North Carolina’s Biblical Recorder reported Thursday (June 21).

Most importantly, Akin noted, Gaines and Greer modeled unity for the SBC despite differences.

“They modeled for our people how we can come together generationally and theologically and move forward in what God has called us to do and that is to get the Gospel to every tribe, tongue, people and nation,” Akin said. “What unites us is so much bigger than these small things where we have differences.”

Video of the B21 panel will be available soon on baptist21.com. B21 focuses on addressing issues relevant to Southern Baptists in the 21st century.

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  • S. Craig Sanders